After 8 years of a Democratic Party government led by Obama and the astonishing victory of Donald Trump one thing is now certain in the U.S: the bourgeois-liberal turn towards the “politics of identity”, embodied in the rhetoric of “empowerment”, has clearly failed. Identity politics, the idea that it will suffice to put those experiencing a particular form of oppression in power to diminish or eliminate oppression, disregarding the multiple social relations that constitute identity, class social position and above all disregarding the political program defended by those accessing to positions of power and visibility, has proven to be a failed illusion. Having more women or black politicians among the parties of the 1%, or more CEOs, T.V. commentators or small company owners, etc., has not addressed the needs of the growing sectors of the U.S. working class that are non-white and non-heterosexual male, nor it has helped on securing more democratic rights.
By Florence Oppen.
The Crisis Of Liberal Identity Politics
It is still hard for the liberal media to make sense of the fact that 53% of white women voted for Trump given his numerous misogynistic comments and actions. In fact, it was impoverished white working class women who voted for him. The fact that 62% of white women without a college degree, who depend on their husband’s wage and are bound to the domestic unpaid reproductive labor saw in Trump an outlet to express their frustrations -frustrations, among others, about the shrinking possibilities to provide for their families and fulfil the “American dream”- deserves careful consideration.
Trump’s victory and success among working class women must be linked to the Democratic Party’s failure to advance basic women’s rights, redress the deep economic inequalities and working women’s double shift, i.e. both their paid and unpaid exploited labor. The paradox is that the DP defeat in appearing as the champions of democratic rights and oppressed sectors has been embodied in a negative balance of the first Black President (Obama) and the first woman presidential nominee (Clinton).
Clinton did not connect with working class women, which are the vast majority of women in the U.S. The main reason for that is that she was perceived as part of the 1% and the political establishment, and thus responsible for the current state of things. As a former member of Walmart’s board of directors and an active participant and supporter of mass incarceration and neoliberal attacks on workers, her record of service for women was pretty poor.
Yet her campaign was based on a vague claim of the first wave of women’s struggles and the suffragette type Feminism combined by the ultimate culmination of identity politics: the U.N. and corporate rhetoric of “empowerment”. Now, instead of improving women’s lives, and in particular that of women who are exploited and oppressed, the goal is to put women in positions of power and high visibility and to convince corporations that promoting women will increase their profits. These arguments read like: “the top twenty-five Fortune 500 companies with the best female promotion records had return on assets 69% higher than competitors in their industry”. The work and goals of the multimillionaire non-profit industry of the Clinton Foundation (with US$350 million worth in assets compared to the meager US$1 million of the Trump foundation) illustrates it. The CF is tasked with “ensuring access to education, financial capital, and political participation for women” as “strategies for advancing long-term sustainable development” -meaning a capitalist one-; it also promotes efforts to change other countries “cultural norms” – meaning impose Western Christian values. Its goal is clear: to have a better performing capitalist world concealed under the rhetoric of “empowerment” and “development”: “When women participate in the economy, poverty decreases and gross domestic product (GDP) grows. It is estimated that as much as [US]$28 trillion, or 26 percent, could be added to the global GDP by 2025 if women played an identical role in formal labor markets to that of men”.
The election campaign and results showed that despite the fact that Clinton clearly won the popular vote, it was not enough to be a woman to win working women’s confidence, for many working women were either skeptical or resentful to have left to suffer in their misery by a women who never did anything to improve their lives. Now, working class women and working people of all sexes will have to fight against Trump’s coming attacks to their rights while rejecting to fall again under the treacherous leadership of the DP if they want to make any significant wins.
Under Obama Working Women Saw No Improvement At The Workplace
American workers have seen their wages stay stagnant, while productivity and profits have risen. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “from 1973 to 2013, hourly compensation of a typical (production/nonsupervisory) worker rose just 9 percent while productivity increased 74 percent”. This means that the wealth produced by U.S. workers has gone to the pockets of the 1%, and in fact inequality has exploded in the last 40 years: “in 2007, the last year before the Great Recession, the average income of the middle 60 percent of American households was [US]$76,443. It would have been $94,310, roughly 23 percent (nearly $18,000) higher had inequality not widened”. This brutal erosion of U.S. workers living standards and massive transfer of wealth to the ruling class was orchestrated by both the Republican and Democratic Party under the neoliberal phase of U.S. imperialism. This is maybe the major material base that begins to explain Trump’s victory, to which of course we need to add the latent sexism and racism in the country, which allowed such a reactionary billionaire to win.
Yet this situation of wage stagnation and progressive impoverishment affected working women more than men. According to the latest report of the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress (April 2016), today’s women’s overall income is still only 79% of what a man earns, a figure that has not moved since 2007, and barely since 2001 (73%). This situation is even worse for African American women, who are only paid 60%, and Latinas who make 55% compared to men. Actually, the gender wage gap in the U.S. is significantly worse than the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] average, and higher than that of countries like Chile, Portugal, Italy, Greece or Hungary. The EPI [Economic Policy Institute] has recently calculated that if working women’s wages were to be adjusted to the increased productivity since 1974 and paired with men… women would see an increase of 70% in their income.
The Congress report further stated that “a woman working full time, year-round, earns [US]$10,800 less per year than a man, based on median annual earnings. This adds up to nearly a half million dollars over a career”. Reality then shows that the Equal Pay Act of 1963 has not been really enforced by any public authority. One of the reasons for that is that most of the workforce is not allowed the right of having collective bargaining and union representation (only 11.1% of workers have a union), which leaves to individual initiative and resources to redress these inequalities. Until this structural matter is not addressed, and equal pay is not enforced through universal collective bargaining and public control, no significant change will ever occur.
The problem is that despite the hope it arose, the Obama government has done very little if anything to redress this situation. On the opposite, by refusing to honor his major promise with the labor movement in 2008 to pass EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act) -which would have allowed all the workplaces which desire to unionize by simple majority to do so, without having to endure the intense bullying and intimidation that goes on today in the union drive campaigns- he took away from working women their greatest chance to significantly reduce the gender wage gap and combat the forms of discrimination and harassment encountered in the workplace.
As expected, Obama first created another “task force” to “address” the issue of gender wage gap in 2010 (National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force). He managed to pass in 2009 the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which just established a more generous interpretation of the already existing anti wage discrimination legislation. The new law now states that the 180-day statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay lawsuit regarding pay discrimination resets with each new paycheck.
Having ditched labor, and refusing to back unions, Obama proposed in 2014 the Paycheck Fairness Act which was considered an extension of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and which would have expanded in a more significant way the mechanisms and legal base for individuals to file and claim equal-pay lawsuits. But like with many other small reforms the Obama administration and the Democratic Party were unwilling to fight until the end to pass it, or use the Presidential executive powers to enact it and the bill was never approved.
Finally, we need to remember that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not guarantee some sort of universal paid maternity leave for working mothers nor any universal sick leave for workers. This issue was first brought to the table by the Sanders campaign and many labor unions and activist, but it was never part of the Democratic Party agenda. Working class women living standards have not significantly improved under Democratic presidents; on the opposite, all studies and statistics show they have rathered followed the path of stagnation and wage loss that has driven down the whole working class, increasing gender and racial disparities. The impact of the economic crisis of 2008 has only worsen these general trends.
The Silent Erosion Of Abortion Rights And The Coming Alt-Right Assault
Some imagined that both the Clinton and the Obama administrations, while happily joining in the neoliberal program of economic reforms and attacks, would have at least protected or expanded democratic rights. However, the assault on abortion rights since 2001, exacerbated under the Obama administration shows a different picture. What has played out in the last 15 years is a bi-partisan neoliberal assault geared at depleting the content and material access of abortion and reproductive rights for women.
Despite the 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe vs Wade which legalized abortion in the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute, today:
- 43 states prohibit abortions, generally except when necessary to protect the woman’s life or health, after a specified point in pregnancy, most often fetal viability;
- 32 states and the District of Columbia prohibit the use of state funds except in those cases when federal funds are available: where the woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest;
- 11 states restrict coverage of abortion in private insurance plans, most often limiting coverage only to when the woman’s life would be endangered if the pregnancy were carried to term;
- 45 states allow individual health care providers to refuse to participate in an abortion;
- 42 states allow institutions to refuse to perform abortions;
- 7 states mandate that women be given counseling before an abortion that includes information on at least one of the following: the purported link between abortion and breast cancer (5 states), the ability of a fetus to feel pain (12 states) or long-term mental health consequences for the woman (9 states);
- 27 states require a woman seeking an abortion to wait a specified period of time, usually 24 hours, between when she receives counseling and the procedure is performed.
Overall, the Guttmacher Institute reports that since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, states have passed 1,074 laws to limit access to abortion, and 334 of these abortion restrictions have been passed since 2010, constituting 30% of all abortion restrictions enacted for the whole period. One might ask: what did the Democratic Party and the Obama administration do to stop this massive and silent erosion of abortion rights? Nothing, not even a public debate or a national campaign. This silent and complicit attitude reveals the true commitment to the liberal sector of the ruling class towards the rights and liberation of oppressed sectors.
Despite opposite rhetorics, both the Republican and Democratic Party have collaborated in making the right to perform an abortion a virtual reality in ⅔ of the country – and let’s be clear what is at stake here: first, a basic health care right for women; second, the right for women to decide over their bodies, to be recognized as independent political subjects, and equal to men.
Now, with the election of Trump and the nomination of an explicitly anti-abortion (and homophobic) Vice President, Mike Pence, reproductive rights are going to be even more on the chopping board. And the culture of passive acceptance to losing rights cultivated by the liberal elites has made the struggle harder. Pence threatened to eliminate abortion rights during a public town hall in Michigan in July during the campaign: “We’ll see Roe v. Wade consigned to the ash heap of history where it belongs”. A first step in that direction is the threat of the new Trump administration to make the Hyde Amendment from 1977 (which bans the use of any federal funds for abortion, unless the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest, or if it is determined to endanger the woman’s life) into permanent law. Until now it is an amendment attached annually to Congressional appropriations bills and has been approved every year by the Congress.
ObamaCare Was A Step Forward In Women’s Reproductive Rights: It Needs To Be Defended And Expanded
If we except the outrageous concession Obama made to the right-wing regarding abortion rights (which explicitly excludes abortion services from the ten essential benefits offered on all non-grandfathered health plans), the Affordable Care Act [ACA], made to benefit the healthcare and pharmaceutical industrial complex, was a step forward in terms of providing more access to reproductive health services to women in the United States. For example, “under Obamacare, birth control for women is free, in any form, from pill to IUD. In 2012, 15% of American women were getting free contraception; in 2015, it was 67%”. Women are now saving an important amount of money in contraception and other reproductive services. Yet it is worth noting that there are still 2.6 million of Americans that do not qualify to those free services as they fall between the Medicaid and Obamacare act. Even if limited this was an improvement.
The Trump government has already announced it will come after the ACA and Planned Parenthood, which is the social service that provides free reproductive health services to poor and low income families, and plans to gutter them. We must oppose any attempt to repeal the ACA or cut Planned Parenthood. On the opposite, we should demand the ACA to be transformed in a free and universal single-payer system, where the state is responsible for providing quality health care services and health is not considered anymore as a commodity to be bought and sold in a marketplace. The demand for free and fully funded reproductive health care and general healthcare for all, including abortion services, should be a demand embraced by the labor movement and popular organizations.
After The Failure Of Identity Politics, We Need A Working Class Fight Back
The burning task after the Trump’s election is how to organize a fight back for women’s rights (and Black, Latino and LGBT rights) that has a chance to win. For that we need to build a base of resistance in our unions, our workplaces, our schools and universities, and put forward a plan of struggle that mobilizes an independent and democratic movement, uniting all the struggles and bringing together the working class and its allies to oppose the upcoming government’s attack.
It is important that in the course of struggle we do not reproduce the mistakes and ideas that have led to previous failures. In response to the limitations of the politics of identity “from above”, sponsored first by the U.N, the World Bank, the Democratic Party and other neoliberal institutions and NGOs, some are proposing to develop instead a politics of identity “from below”. This attempt to claim a “progressive” trend of identity politics is still based on making of identity (race, gender, LGBT) the sole political platform of liberation, and to defend the strategy of atomized and identity-based groups and actions, with no class perspective nor one to build an inclusive unity of all sectors with an independent program.
Let’s be clear: when we are talking about identity politics, we are not taking issue with personal identity (how could we? we all have one!), but with an ideology, which emerged in the 80’s and became hegemonic with the neoliberal turn. It became an hegemonic alternative for liberation in the context where U.S. imperialism asserted that no further revolutionary movement of the working class could or should fight for power to destroy capitalism, bring working people to power and set the material basis for liberation.
This ideology is not identical, nor can be said to designate, the social and political struggles of the oppressed, which existed way before. Furthermore, all movements are inhabited by competing and sometimes partially converging programs, ideas, etc. The problem of identity politics is precisely the limiting politics it brings to the movement: its reformist program and individual strategy for liberation, which ends up confined in the assertion that one’s individual identity (being a woman, black, gay, etc.) as having a single and pre-determined meaning, usually a liberatory one, assuming that exhibiting one’s identity is the ultimate revolutionary gesture.
While we don’t deny the importance of identities celebration, and the key role of cultural expression, identity politics forgets or conceals a key social reality: identities are not fixed or univocal, but rather socially determined by multiple relations of class, gender, race, sexuality, nationality, which are now called “intersectional”, and that Marxism theorizes as dialectically combined (class and gender they do not merely “intersect” but rather modify each other’s material existence and meaning).
From our perspective, no social movement will be able to defend the democratic rights of the oppressed sectors nor push forward the fight for liberation if it is not rooted in an anti-capitalist, independent, class-based movement, with a program that combines the struggles against oppression with the struggle against exploitation.
Originally published in International Courier #16.
 In 1998, Lilly Ledbetter, a female supervisor at Goodyear Tire and Rubber, filed a claim against sexual discrimination in the workplace after revelations that her salary was 40% lower than the lowest-paid male supervisor at the company. Although Ledbetter won the case and received US$3.5 million in financial compensation for her losses, the decision was eventually overturned in 2007 due to ambiguous language around the statute of limitations period for filing sexual discrimination charges.
 “The Paycheck Fairness Act would require that wage comparisons be made across multiple establishments within the same county or political jurisdiction under the same employer. Currently, employers are only required to compare wages of men and women doing the same job at the same establishment. This means a woman can be paid less than a man who is doing the same job, but ‘across town’. Further employers would be prohibited from punishing workers for sharing pay information with colleagues. Increasing pay transparency would help all employees access the information they need to ensure they are being paid fairly.” – http://www.jec.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/0779dc2f-4a4e-4386-b847-9ae919735acc/gender-pay-inequality—-us-congress-joint-economic-committee.pdf